Monday, April 21, 2008

Feature Fails to Deliver

Headlines lead readers to expect a story will deliver particular facts. Yesterday’s Big Story dominated the front page: “Casualties of war: How one Marine’s death is prompting a closer look at PTSD.”

The headline and art made Old Word Wolf expect the long feature story might describe how a recent tragedy – the accidental death of a traumatized marine -- might shed light on a national problem.

The article fails to deliver. Despite the writer's claim the tragedy is provoking national attention, he presents no evidence that this marine’s death prompted anything national or more than a family’s vague desire to “help others.”

Here's what is offered instead:

In 70 paragraphs, OWW finds a flawed recap of the life and death of an Indiana native who visited relatives in southwest Florida earlier this year as part of his effort to recover from the trauma of military service in Iraq.

The reporting flaws begin on the first page: The reporter -- an "assistant editor" -- says 20 percent, or “120,000,” of 800,000 returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002 have been diagnosed with a mental-health condition. His math error is picked up and featured in a box on jump -- but there’s not one mention of how the man’s death is causing people to look closely at the PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

The first and only expert the reporter quotes is Ira Katz, Veterans Administration deputy chief patient care services officer, saying “Any number is high, but we expect we can manage it with the funding available.” So Katz is not the one taking the “closer look” at the system because of this marine's death, as the writer/editor promises.

Turning to the jump, the inside headline reiterates: “Eric Hall case prompts a closer look at PTSD.” But instead of addressing that promise, the reporter tells readers the marine’s hometown is “quaint,” while offering no evidence for this assessment. (A quick trip to the town’s historic-preservation committee Web site finds phrases like “architectural indifference is not hard to find downtown,” and longish descriptions of a riverfront town struggling to preserve its past.)

The second “expert” interviewed is identified only as Charlie Shaughnessy, a Vietnam vet. No city, no middle initial, no age, no address, nothing but a diminutive nickname. Is he local? What's his area of expertise? Was this character made up? readers might well ask.

Ok, this is getting tedious. The punch line is that somewhere south of the 65th paragraph, readers learn the marine’s mother “does not want to see the same thing happen to other young men.” The news on which the headlines seem to be based is:
[She] is in the process of establishing the Eric Hall Memorial Fund to help veterans and their families. Although tentative, the fund would provide money for returning soldiers to assist with their transition home. It would push for tougher legislation to increase the decompression phase to a minimum of 60 days, and allow family members to be present so they can better understand the issues [...] Hall also wants to enact legislation so every soldier is registered with the VA for any present or future combat related illness.

The initiative is already receiving national support. Locally, two major fund raising events are scheduled for the summer and fall
Sorry, that’s not enough. Everything is “tentative.” Most important, the reporter gives no evidence to support his assertion that the “initiative” is receiving “national support.” There is not one substantial connection in the whole story to tie the local death to a national examination of PTSD afflicted veterans.

This Charlotte Sun feature is big on promises but Assistant Editor Jason Witz fails to deliver. In that failure, he and the paper conspire to exploit a man’s death for not much.


  1. I am wondering why you are so hard on your local paper. Did you used to work there or something?

    I can't tell if you are out to save the world or just a disgruntled ex-employee. I read today's story and found it to be a pretty good tale about a local tragedy.

    Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

  2. Who I am is no secret. My resume is in the archive and easy to access. You'll see I've never worked for this paper. I am a disgruntled reader -- one that hoped to read about local government, school boards, quasi-governmental groups and how they affect the people who pay taxes, rasie families and hold jobs in the area. Instead, we are bombarded with "literary club news" and short notices of public and private events. Simply rewriting the school board or city council agenda does not not constitute reporting.

    The newspaper brags it's a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It does not archive that entry (riddled with typos and confusing writing), and it does not live up to the brag.

    Regarding the most recent critque: If a reporter says a case has drawn national attention, then he ought to report exactly what that national attention consists of. That journalistic assertion is never fufilled in this piece.

    What do I ask for? Better journalism, journalism that delivers in the best tradition of "Pulitzer Prize" winners.

  3. Anonymous:

    OWW is trying to bring this rag up to the level of a decent, informative newspaper. We don't need to know about the stuff they print (local parties, golf tourney winners, how the reporter spent his summer vacation). We do need to know what is happening in our community, county, state, and world. These reporters cannot spell, cannot write a decent sentence and certainly do no investigative reporting. Every day I learn more from OWW than I ever do from reading this rag. I know OWW is retired, but if there was a way to draft her into starting her own newspaper, believe me, I and others would do it!

    OWW is not mean, not hard, she is just trying to bring the level of this newspaper to a level to benefit us all.

  4. I read the story, too, and when I finished, I wondered what's the point? The "news," such as it is, is featured prominently in the next-to-last paragraph. The kid who wrote this needs to remember his "inverted pyramid" holds true, even for feature stories. It sounds like he grew up where everyone gets a trophy for showing up. That's not journalism. The story needs to deliver -- and this one didn't. Sorry, kid.